Herculean efforts reflect organizational deficiencies

When he headed up Chrysler, Lee Iacocca said, “How can I trust a manager with a department if he can’t organize two weeks off with his family?” It is short-sighted for the startup entrepreneur to brag about working outrageous hours. It is self-defeating for the upstart department to push employees past their limits to beat another department to a milestone — herculean efforts don’t work. They are repeat prohibitive.

Repeat prohibitive describes the runner or cyclist who ventures too far out the first time, suffers grinding pain and swears to never again repeat the experience.

Herculean efforts incite creative bragging about long work hours or skipped vacations. Americans leave more than 600 million unused vacation days a year. I remember noticing how some employees regularly recorded late-night messages and carefully positioned their cars in the parking lot while hitching rides with friends for evening gym workouts.

Overdone herculean efforts evolve from two deficiencies in the organization. First, when a startup, steady-on or established business loses touch with its mission and values, employees and entire departments begin to pick their own battles and puff up their importance to appear relevant. With no clear mission or values, people exaggerate the importance of whatever they’re doing.

A second reason for continually moving fake mountains is having a poor measurement system. My best clients have great measurement systems. Others judge performance on hearsay, rumor and isolated events. A simple and visible system that measures long-term goals and short-term indicators works best. No one has to pretend to be working hard — thoughtful numbers show true performance.

Four problems with extended herculean efforts:

1. Mental aversion — This is where repeat prohibitive kicks in. Our brains hate pain. That is why we conveniently forget to start hard tasks or difficult physical workouts — oops, forgot it again. We didn’t forget, our brains blocked it out.

2. Worsening team dynamics — Sure, there’s a level of camaraderie that grows from fighting for a common cause with “tooth and nail.” The problem is that team members get fired up and later burnt out at different times and rates. Herculean efforts accelerate this mismatch of emotional engine revving among members of the team.

3. Physical damage — Sleep deprivation, cortisol in the blood and constant alert combine in a multiplier effect to make you and your business sick. You might think you’re tough, but Mother Nature will kick your butt. My tests and observations show that you can hide the effects of stress and overwork for about 18 months.  After that year and a half, you’ll become “BFF” with two or three of the following: muscle twitches, vision issues, neck pain, back spasms, eating disorders, addiction, interpersonal blow-ups and concentration lapses.

4. Mistakes go up while learning goes down — I believe that 30 percent to 40 percent of herculean efforts go to fix the problems or missed opportunities from the last herculean effort! The mistakes were small and simple back then. Now, they’ve grown tentacles reaching into all parts of the enterprise. The best learning occurs under moderate stress. Anything that spikes anxiety will stifle learning. Employees resent leaders who con them into needlessly sacrificing their humanity.

Enlightened leaders value good results over herculean efforts. All must step up and “elevate our game” when genuinely required. Those who do this best are the ones who rest, care for their families and reflect on who they are as human beings.

Of course, Iacocca turned Chrysler around and later retired. He believed that you can pace yourself to accomplish great things and guard your humanity enough to do it again.

Rick Griggs is former Intel Corp. training manager and inventor of the rolestorming creativity tool. He speaks on balance, teams and the confidence of Napoleon. Reach him at 970-690-7327.